John Servis couldn't believe it. At 5 a.m., he says, a couple hundred bleary-eyed fans were already lined up along the rail at Philadelphia Park, awaiting their hero. By mid-morning, the crowd had swelled to more than 8,500 -- hard-core gamblers with unlit cigar stubs in their teeth, students wearing Villanova sweatshirts, young mothers pushing strollers, teenagers with green hair. "It was amazing," Servis said. "The whole thing is amazing."
That was May 22, and the eager thousands -- some from as far away as Lynchburg, Virginia, and New Haven, Connecticut -- had turned out to watch Smarty Jones, a thoroughbred that Servis trains. The undersized chestnut colt wouldn't even race that day. He would only gallop a lap and a half around the one-mile track, then disappear into the barn. So the big gathering was akin to a mob of baseball nuts showing up to watch Barry Bonds shag flies. "I can't believe the way Smarty has touched people's lives," Servis said later, by phone. "I guess he's got a story they can grasp."
That story taxes belief. As if the protagonist of some outlandish fairy tale, the horse was bred at a place called Someday Farm, in a town called New Hope, Pennsylvania. Soon after he was foaled, the little farm's trainer and the trainer's wife were murdered. The colt's shocked, small-time owners promptly sold all their stock -- except for Smarty and one other horse. That was just the beginning. At age two, the colt smashed his head on a steel bar in a gate-training accident and nearly died. Servis, a workaday horseman who had never sniffed the bigtime, patiently brought him back from the injury, and on November 8, 2003, Smarty won his very first race, at humble Philadelphia Park. Since then, no horse has beaten him at any distance, despite the fact that his sire, Elusive Quality, and his dam, I'll Get Along, were both sprinters.
Smarty Jones is eight for eight at five different racetracks, including his convincing victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. He's won those eight races by a total of 47 1/2 lengths. This Saturday he will run in the Belmont Stakes, seeking to become just the twelfth Triple Crown winner in the history of the sport -- and the first since Affirmed in 1978. He's even got his own website, www.team-smartyjones.com.
There's more. Smarty Jones's owner, a 73-year-old car dealer named Roy Chapman, is deathly ill with emphysema. His jockey, Stewart Elliott, is a Philly Park journeyman with 3,300 victories, but he'd never even been to Churchill Downs before winning the Derby. If he can take the Belmont, Smarty will become the richest horse in the history of racing, thanks to his second $5 million bonus in six weeks.
The makers of Seabiscuit wouldn't dare write such garish stuff, but on Saturday, Smarty Jones must defy an even stranger, albeit more familiar, racetrack story. To wit: A quick three-year-old wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; then he drags his weary hide up to New York and, while the big crowd steams and curses and weeps, runs like a worn-out mule in the Belmont Stakes. Remember Northern Dancer? In 1964, he finished third behind Quadrangle. How about Sunday Silence? Easy Goer beat him to the wire in 1989. Just since 1997, Triple Crown hopefuls Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem and last year's disappointment, Funny Cide, all failed in the Belmont, the mile-and-a-half marathon they call, with very good reason, the Test of the Champion.
The race-day alibis have been many and varied. In 1979, they say, Spectacular Bid stepped on a pin in his stall on the morning of the Belmont and wound up finishing third behind Coastal. In 1981, Pleasant Colony caught a bad trip and was lucky to grab the show spot behind Summing. Kauai King got trapped on a dead rail. Tim Tam had a fever. Who knows? Maybe Carry Back stayed too late at the Stork Club and Majestic Prince spent a frisky Friday night with a debutante. It's an old story. Since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown 26 years ago, no fewer than nine Derby- and Preakness-winning colts got their hooves full of lead in the Belmont Stakes. Sixteen have failed since Pensive set the style in 1944.
Little matter. The smart money -- and the dumb money -- will all be on Smarty Jones Saturday afternoon, and if he doesn't cruise home in the Belmont, you can start wondering what al-Qaeda put in his oats. Smarty's Derby, on a sloppy track, was impressive: He flew by Lion Heart in the stretch like he was passing a $5,000 claimer. But his Preakness was a masterpiece that dispelled any doubts about his quality. In demolishing a tough ten-horse field by eleven and a half lengths, the greatest margin in the 129-year history of the race, this Rocky of the thoroughbred world not only outran his pedigree by daylight, but joined the company of legends, too. It was one of the best performances by a three-year-old in a decade.
Gary Stevens, the veteran rider on second-place finisher Rock Hard Ten and a star of Seabiscuit, compared Smarty Jones to the greatest of them all, Secretariat. For that matter, so did Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery. When Mike Smith, who had a distant view of the Preakness proceedings from the back of fourth-place Lion Heart, was asked if anything could beat the winner, he replied with three well-chosen syllables: "Not right now." Retired jockey Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed in 1978, told the New York Times last week: "I don't see what's going to stop him, other than bad luck."
Ah, bad luck. It hangs around the racetrack like the scent of manure. Come Saturday, Smarty Jones might buck a shin or throw a shoe. The pit crew might forget to change his oil. He could get uppity and demand a new contract. Just a theory, but maybe he'll fall prey to the curse of the Joneses. The same day Smarty Jones won the Preakness, after all, the great boxer Roy Jones Jr. got knocked out in the second round. Sprinter Marion Jones, who's slower than Smarty, has a beef with Olympics bureaucrats over steroids. Race driver P.J. Jones (son of Parnelli) smacked the wall and finished 28th in Sunday's Indy 500. Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and the rest of the Atlanta Braves are in third place.
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Is Smarty Jones also cursed? As the railbirds at Belmont would say, fuggedaboutit! They won't beat him Saturday. "We're going into the Belmont with a loaded gun," Servis said. "My job is just to keep him relaxed. He's very professional. I just don't want him to be too sharp when we get up to New York."
That's the kind of problem trainers of the other three-year-olds would like to have this year. At this writing, six other colts are set to go in the Belmont, including Rock Hard Ten and third-place Preakness finisher Eddington. Trainer Nick Zito sends out Birdstone and Royal Assault. But none of them appears to be what racetrackers call a "push-button" horse -- an alert, tractable type that responds with a dazzling burst of speed when his jockey asks for it, when the rider pushes the button at, say, the three-eighths pole. Affirmed was push-button, Cauthen says. Citation and Secretariat were push-button. And if we can believe what we saw in the Preakness, so is Smarty Jones. After the helpless Gary Stevens watched Elliott and Smarty sail by Rock Hard Ten in the stretch, he marveled: "My horse had another gear left; Smarty Jones had four more."
Whatever happens Saturday, a lot more Americans than usual will be paying attention. This year's Preakness drew its highest TV ratings since 1990, and Belmont Park officials expect 120,000 Smarty fans to turn out on Saturday afternoon, far eclipsing the record crowd that watched War Emblem fail in his 2002 bid. These are the kind of Red Army numbers that horse racing hasn't enjoyed in a long time -- not even last year, when another "people's horse," the modestly bred, regular-guy-owned Funny Cide became the fifth Triple Crown hopeful in the last seven years to fall prey to the Test of the Champion.
Let's hope Smarty Jones completes the task that has daunted so many. Otherwise, a lot of cigar-chompers and kids with green hair will be bawling their eyes out in Philadelphia -- not to mention old Roy Chapman, the good people of New Hope and anybody, anywhere, who's ever bought a win ticket on a champion and watched him get hot and sweaty going for the show.